Palo Alto Weekly

News - July 9, 2010

Palo Alto's garbage rates may spike

With revenues falling due to economy and 'green' success, city considers raising rates, cutting services

by Gennady Sheyner

Palo Alto's waste-collection service is, in some ways, a victim of its own success.

The city's effort to discourage old-fashioned trash and encourage recycling and composting seems to be going well, almost too well, with more commercial customers trimming their loads of landfill-bound garbage.

But less trash also means less revenue for the city's Refuse Fund, which in turn means that city residents and businesses may soon have to pay higher rates to get their trash picked up. City staff has proposed a 6 percent hike for residential customers and a 9 percent increase for commercial ones.

The City Council Finance Committee members struggled with the irony Tuesday night as they brainstormed ways to close a $6.7 million deficit in the Refuse Fund, a budget hole the committee learned about in May.

The options, which Councilman Larry Klein called "an interesting collection of bad alternatives," did not sit well with committee members, however.

In addition to rate increases, staff proposed budget fixes including charging more for landfill use; closing the city's compost and recycling facilities earlier than planned (a move that would send the city's trimmings and recyclables to the SMaRT Station in Sunnyvale); and shifting street sweeping from weekly to biweekly.

Committee members, reluctant to raise rates, asked the Public Works Department for more information about the alternatives and a larger menu of possible cuts.

Councilman Greg Scharff said the department should consider eliminating jobs.

The budget gap can partially be attributed to the success of the city's Zero Waste program, which promotes recycling and composting and gives residents incentives to throw away less trash. The program, which the council instituted in 2004, has helped Palo Alto increase the percentage of local waste diverted from landfills by about 15 percent, to about 78 percent.

But the existing rate structure is also hurting the city's bottom line. As green-minded residents trade their 32-gallon trash carts for 20-gallon "mini-cans" and in the process slash their monthly rates from $31 to $15, the city's revenues have plummeted.

Recycling, meanwhile, is free.

Scharff called the city's rate structure "completely unsustainable it's crashing and burning."

"Zero Waste is equaling zero dollars and that's the problem," Scharff said.

Scharff said he would rather keep the city's landfill-diversion rate at 78 percent than strive to attain 90 percent if the higher goal means higher costs and a lower quality of life for city residents.

Meanwhile, the city is trying to prevent future budget surprises in the Refuse Fund. Solid Waste Manager Rene Eyerly said Tuesday the model staff used to project refuse revenues was "outdated" and "simplistic." Staff has been working with a consultant since last fall to devise a more sophisticated and accurate forecasting model, which is now being finalized, she said.

The revenue drop is not simply a problem that could affect city services. The gap needs to be remedied because of a state contract related to the landfill.

The landfill, which is more than 98 percent full, is scheduled to close between 2012 and 2014, based on volume in the landfill and when the dump is deemed full. Palo Alto is required by its state landfill-operations permit to keep more than $6 million in reserves to close the landfill.

The revenue shortfall is threatening to bring the reserve down to almost zero, which would put the city in direct violation of its contract, Public Works Director Glenn Roberts said.

"We absolutely have to take some initiative now to deal with this either through rate increase or expense reductions, knowing full well that we'll be going through a study and coming back a year from now with some major changes in this regard," he said.

In her report, Eyerly attributed the shortfall in the Refuse Fund to two factors in addition to the Zero Waste program: a reduction in customer sales caused by the ongoing recession; and city policies that include more capital spending and a ban on commercial waste at the city's landfill near the Baylands.

The committee took no action Tuesday, but Klein said he was bothered by the idea of changing the rate structure for two years in a row this year and next, after the staff completes its study of rate levels. The city also raised refuse rates by 17 percent in June 2009.

Klein suggested deferring rate changes for a few more months, when more data and a better forecasting model are available.

Scharff said he opposes reducing the level of street sweeping, a service reduction that could increase water pollution in the baylands and in local creeks.

"I'm troubled by the fact that we're substituting one environmental good for another," Scharff said. "What we're saying is Zero Waste takes precedence to protecting the Bay."

The committee is scheduled to resume the discussion July 20.

DROP QUOTE:

'Zero Waste is equaling zero dollars and that's the problem.'

Palo Alto Councilman Greg Scharff

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.

Comments

Posted by big spike?, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Jul 7, 2010 at 7:40 am

Did I read this article correctly? The city is considering a 6% increase in garbage rates, so my $15/month will increase to $16/month. Is that the "refuse-pickup rates may spike" that the title is referring to?


Posted by Big Al, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 7, 2010 at 9:22 am

Good question big slike.
Now, let's hold our breath.


Posted by Kate, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 7, 2010 at 10:34 am

A new position was created - a "Sustainabiity Corrdinator" complete with staff, office, office supplies, etc. - and we get constant very flashy mailings about 'being green" month after month after month. Those salaries plus benefits alone are costing us a bundle. Let's start at the bottom of the costs and get quickly to the top. An enormous amount of fluff money is being spent just on publicity and then on top of that salaries. Are all of these people necessary? How many new hires were the result of this 'green program'? And this bunch wanted to go through our garbage cans. Evidently none of them even lives here.


Posted by Mille, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jul 7, 2010 at 10:56 am

I'm SO tired of the green mailings that cost money. I'm tired of the never-ending rate increases for doing the right thing.

Get rid of these idiots. Don't they knew we're in a recession? Look at all the empty stores.


Posted by just wondering, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Jul 7, 2010 at 11:53 am

would it help if they collected every 2 weeks instead of every week?


Posted by GM resident, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jul 7, 2010 at 1:35 pm

I'm glad to live in a city where recycling has actually been simplified and I hope there is more recycling as a result. However, I'm appalled at the thoughtless abuse of the "blue" cans in public parks, such as Cubberley. I'm thinking it might be better not even to put them there since garbage gets put in right along with the recyclables.

I too am tired of the self-congratulatory and self-righteous glossy mailings about how sustainable we are. There are better things to do with the funds, like *not* put the paper into the stream to begin with.


Posted by A Palo Alto parent, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 7, 2010 at 2:17 pm

Thanks again, City of Palo Alto. You're making it really easy for me to leave you when I buy my next house.


Posted by pro pollution, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Jul 7, 2010 at 4:54 pm

I cannot believe how many pro-pollution anti-recycling people live in Palo Alto. If you want to leave and take your pollution to another city, good riddance.


Posted by Anon., a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 7, 2010 at 4:56 pm

Hmmm, people are recycling more, so ....

Wait a minute ... most of the items I put in my recycle have a cash redemption value, that I pay for when I go shopping. Does the city get none of that or is this just unmitigated greed and incompetence?

I also agree with the endless mailings of slick brochures ... just put the website on the bill and let interested people find out for themselves.

This is really pathetic.


Posted by Anon., a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 7, 2010 at 5:00 pm

[Post removed due to disrespectful comment or offensive language]


Posted by jb, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jul 7, 2010 at 5:02 pm

Quotation:
Councilman Greg Scharff called the city's rate structure "completely unsustainable" and said he would rather see the city's landfill-diversion rate remain at 78 percent than go up to 90 percent and, in the process, hurt the city's quality of life.

Question:
How does landfill diversion returning to 90% "hurt the city's quality of life?"

I did not notice a greater quantities of garbage in places it shouldn't be in the past 10 years. Is this a politician making an inflammatory assertion to stampede the ignorant and the astounded into doing it his way without asking any questions?


Posted by Mike, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 7, 2010 at 5:51 pm

This is not irony, it is tragedy.

Government is the only entity I can think of where to achieve the results they seek negative incentives are offered.

Use less water and end up paying more. Recycle and pay more for garbage pickup. Carpool and end up paying bridge tolls. Ride public transit and pay ever increasing ticket prices to cover lost ridership.

Something in this model is broken, or maybe its just that the inherent inefficiency of government means they will always raise the toll on everything as soon as they can figure out an excuse to do so...


Posted by common sense, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 7, 2010 at 7:29 pm

Something doesn't seem quite right. The article gives the impression that because all the residents are recycling more, and using smaller garbage cans that there is a $6.7 million deficit. Do the math:

$6.7 million/12 months = $558,333/month reduction in garbage fees.

A reduction from 32 gallon garbage can to 20 gallon can is a reduction of $12/month, so

$558,333/$12 = 46,257 households.

Guess what, according to the 2000 census, there are only 26,000 households....

The city staff is giving answers that don't add up!


Posted by Ask-More-Questions, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 7, 2010 at 8:03 pm

> The city staff is giving answers that don't add up!

Welcome to the wonderful world of Palo Alto Government.

> shifting street sweeping from weekly to biweekly.

This might not be a bad idea, but how much money is this going to save in the short run?

> He (Schraff) also said he opposes reducing the level of street
> sweeping, a service reduction that could increase water pollution
> in the baylands and at local creeks.

By how much. Rather than making "sweeping" statements about things this guy could not know anything about, it would seem to be better for Council Members to inquire as to the impact of reducing periodic sweeping on "pollution". Keeping in mind that it doesn't rain a lot in Palo Alto, so the natural movement of "debris" or other forms of "pollution" are not as likely here outside of the rainy season, as during the rainy season. It might be that reducing the period of street sweeping might not be all that bad. Of course, there are other things that street sweepers clean up, like broken glass.

Street sweeping is one of those things that the City should be look to robotics to do in the future. There would be an initial startup cost, but the cost for the guidance systems would easily be offset by reducing head count of people driving these vehicles up and down the streets.


Posted by Mark, a resident of Stanford
on Jul 8, 2010 at 12:38 am

Can the City start charging a modest recycling collection fee (like $5-10/month)? I mean, pilot program did great with the whole 78% diversion thing when it was free, but it makes sense now to start charging for the service. Recycling really doesn't have to be a "free" service.

Kind of like how Hybrid drivers get to use the carpool lane for a bit as a perk but eventually, that perk expires.

I have a feeling though the city can't necessarily do this if the recycling service was contracted out to a bidder who actually pays to be the group doing the recycling.


Posted by Mike, a resident of University South
on Jul 8, 2010 at 6:43 am

My condo association pays $80/week for trash pickup - 1 dumpster.

Random people pick through our recyclables - 2 bins - taking the ones with CRV.


Posted by Mike, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 8, 2010 at 10:10 am

Why not have the homeless on the Street Team pick up the core recyclables and let them keep the CRV refunds?


Posted by Mimi Wolf, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 8, 2010 at 11:05 am

Everyone clean out your garage, throw everything away, recycle nothing. Support the city and then sell your house and move to a place where you can afford to live.


Posted by Tom Jordan, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 8, 2010 at 12:10 pm

The problem would seem to be gross mismanagement of the Palo Alto Refuse operation by Dept. of Public Works. DPW says that gross revenues declined because of decreased volume. Accepting that as a fact, in a well run operation the expenses of operation, mainly personnel costs, would have been cut back proportionately to the level necessary to handle the decreased volume. Even giving the benefit of a reasonable lag in cutting back to make certain that the decrease in volume continues, there should not have been a $6M lag before operating costs are cut. Have they been cut yet? I see nothing in the reports that say they have. Clearly, operating costs can be cut to the level necessary to handle the current volume, and continued deficits should not continue. The two questions are: Have operating costs been cut to the appropriate level? Why were they not cut sooner, and whose responsibility was it monitor the revenues and costs and to reduce costs? The problem is entirely one of mismanagement, not the other distractions complained of above. One has to wonder at the intelligence of many of the above comments not see the real problem, which is so clear and basic that a fifth grader could see it.


Posted by Kate, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 8, 2010 at 5:12 pm

How many fou- ups can be allowed to come from Public Works. Scandals on certification, scandals on 'moonlighting', scandals on the dump fire, one problem after another. One of the most highly paid employees is Glenn Roberts, head of Public Works.And our miserable streets. It's time to clean house now.


Posted by James, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 8, 2010 at 5:19 pm

The residents should have the option to sign up for different frequency of collection.
Weekly, BiWeekly, Monthly.
Depending on the occupancy of a household, some of us do not generate enough trash and recylcing for weekly service.
We are paying for service that we don't need or use.


Posted by Its the management, stupid, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 8, 2010 at 5:56 pm

I agree with Tom Jordan above, where he points out that none of the suggestions here make financial sense without a reduction in personnel. The overpaid manager of Public Works needs to do some managing. Not just BS'ing which he is so good at.
As Kate points out, how many scandals do we put up with before that department gets cleaned up?


Posted by Jo Ann, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jul 8, 2010 at 8:15 pm

James, good idea about letting us sign up for different frequencies of collections. Now that we have to lug our cans out to the street, I knew I wait until they're at least 3/4 full.


Posted by MIke, a resident of University South
on Jul 9, 2010 at 6:29 am

Crescent Park Mike, That would be stealing - which is illegal.


Posted by Pville Resident, a resident of Professorville
on Jul 10, 2010 at 4:32 pm

Wait a minute... So we are conscientious and recycle instead of throwing everything in the trash, and for that we get punished? We should be rewarded with a rate decrease instead of an increase. After all, there is revenue earned for what is put in the recycle bin. Encouraging folks to throw everything in the trash and not recycle is a bad idea. And that is exactly what the threatened rate increase does. If there is less garbage to collect, then fewer garbage collectors are needed. Reduce staff and the fee increase will not be needed.

The article stated:
"Solid Waste Manager Rene Eyerly said Tuesday the model staff used to project refuse revenues was "outdated" and "simplistic." Staff has been working with a consultant since last fall to devise a more sophisticated and accurate forecasting model, which is now being finalized, she said."

Why not replace whoever on the city staff is responsible for projecting refuse revenues with someone able to do the job? Why should the taxpayers have to shell out extra $$$ for consultants to do things that should be handled by the city?


Posted by Big Brother is Watching Your Garbage, a resident of Monroe Park
on Jul 10, 2010 at 6:08 pm

As has been noted above in several posts, the "reward" for what the city deems right and proper behavior is ALWAYS higher prices. As long as revenue is tied in with conservation and/or behavioral goals, this is the only possible outcome. Tax smokers and get them to quit because it costs them so much to smoke, and then raise the taxes again and again when the revenue stream decreases when people stop buying cigarettes. Get people to recycle and compost, and then raise prices for garbage collection, because the revenue stream decreases when people recycle and compost more. Get people to conserve water use, and then raise prices because the revenue stream decreases when people don't use as much water. This is certainly a perverse system of incentives, and people are getting tired of this line of logic, which seems to be a favorite of government at every level - local, state and federal. We just aren't giving them enough money. Anyone still really believe this?


Posted by Bikes2work, a resident of Santa Rita (Los Altos)
on Jul 10, 2010 at 7:36 pm

" because the revenue stream decreases when people recycle and compost more."

But picking up three streams of curbside carts costs three times as much as picking up garbage alone. The revenue from recyclables and finished compost doesn't even come close to paying for the pickup and processing of those materials. The zero waste concept has been subsidized by the garbage fee, and that is not working anymore.


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